Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist (Differences Explained)

If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, you might be wondering: what are the differences between a dental assistant vs. a dental hygienist. This post provides you with everything you need to know about the differences between dental hygienists and dental assistants.

If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, consider enrolling in FCC’s Dental Assistant Program. The great thing about the program is that it can be completed, and you can earn your diploma in as few as 10 months, placing you on the fast track to becoming a dental assistant.

Interested In Our Dental Assistant Program? CLICK HERE >

Within the dentistry field, career titles are important. Not only do they define the responsibilities, tasks, and expectations of all team members within a clinic, but they also indicate each person’s level of education, expertise, and authority.

Certain titles also serve to establish a hierarchy of management and accountability, which in many cases are further defined by government-mandated licensing rules.

In most clinics, dentists are positioned at the top of this list. We all know who they are, these doctors of oral health who specialize in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of conditions and diseases related to your teeth and mouth.

Below the dentists, however, titles and roles can seem a bit murkier, at least from the outside looking in. When visiting a dental clinic, patients are likely to encounter other scrub-wearing staff members who initially check them in, take X-rays, ask questions, update charts, prepare them for exams, and perhaps even clean their teeth.

These are the dental assistants and dental hygienists, and they both play critical – but very different – roles in ensuring the clinic operates smoothly while also delivering important patient services.

And, for those considering training for a career in the dentistry field, the level of training and education required for each is also very different. Now, let’s explore the differences between dental assistants vs dental hygienists.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

The main difference between dental assistants and dental assistants lies within the tasks that each can perform. Dental hygienists can perform more tasks than dental assistants. For example, dental hygienists can perform cleanings, polishing, and examination of a patient’s teeth, while dental are not permitted to do so by law. ­­

Let’s dive into more details as to who dental assistants vs. hygienists are and what they can and cannot do.

What is a Dental Assistant?

A dental assistant serves as a key member of a dentistry clinic’s team, one who exists to help improve the quality and efficiency of the clinic both administratively in the “front office” and clinically in the exam room and/or lab. Generally, in an unlicensed (but still regulated) position, dental assistants fulfill a wide range of duties during a typical day, from scheduling appointments and checking in patients to preparing patients in the exam room, taking X-rays, and assisting dentists during procedures.

What is a Dental Hygienist?

In contrast to dental assistants, dental hygienists are more highly trained professionals required to be licensed with state boards of dental examiners. This allows them to work with patients one-on-one to offer education and treatments focused on maintaining good oral health. Tasks performed by dental hygienists include assessing a patient’s overall oral health so potential issues can be identified early; removing plaque, tartar, and stains from teeth; applying fluoride and sealants; and educating patients regarding long-term treatment plans.

As the position can serve as a more easily attainable entry point into the dentistry field, some dental professionals opt to begin their careers as dental assistants before committing additional education and training to become a hygienist.

What are the Roles and Responsibilities of Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists?

The typical roles and tasks provided by effective dental assistants can be broken down into two distinct categories: administrative and clinical. And of course, the tasks required of individual dental assistants are likely to vary from clinic to clinic, depending on need. Here are some of the tasks most dental assistants can expect to perform, however:

Dental Assistant Administrative Tasks

  • Answering phones and scheduling appointments
  • Updating and maintaining patient dental records
  • Overseeing patient check-in procedures
  • Coding and preparing insurance forms
  • Scheduling referral and testing appointments
  • General office administration

Dental Assistant Clinical Tasks

  • Showing patients to their exam rooms
  • Preparing patients for procedures and/or surgeries
  • Assisting with procedures such as fillings, crowns and extractions
  • Making dental impressions
  • Sterilizing dental instruments and equipment
  • Post-procedure clean-up
  • Generally chairside assisting of dentists and hygienists

While some of these tasks may be shared between dental hygienists dental assistants, dental hygienists are further advanced in their training and education. This allows them to take on additional patient-directed responsibilities independent of dental oversight. These tasks include:

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Dental Hygienist Tasks

  • Dental cleanings, or removing tartar, stains, and plaque from patients’ teeth
  • Applying fluoride and sealants that help protect patients’ teeth
  • Taking dental X-rays
  • Assess patients’ oral health, to be reported to the dentist
  • Recognize and report signs of potential oral issues, problems or diseases early, when they can be more easily treated
  • Document patient dental care and treatment plans
  • Educate patients about maintaining good oral health and disease prevention

Work Environment For Dental Hygienists vs Dental Assistants

The work environment in which dental assistants and dental hygienists work is similar: in the clinic. Yet, while dental hygienists are most likely to spend most of their time working one-on-one with patients in the exam room, dental assistants typically move about the entire clinic to perform both administrative and clinical tasks.

In fact, dental assistants provide levels of support for staff members throughout the practice. They work with front-office and billing staff to schedule appointments, update records, and process claims. They also work side-by-side with dentists – and even hygienists – back in the exam rooms as patients are assessed, treated, and educated about long-term prevention and care plans.

Education Requirements for Dental Assistants vs Dental Hygienists

It may be surprising to learn that some states do not have set education, training, and licensing requirements for one to become an entry-level dental assistant so long as he or she works under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist. Some states do have set special licensing and training requirements for performing certain tasks within the position, however, such as radiography/X-rays, coronal polishing, and other expanded functions.

That said, many potential employers prefer to hire dental assistants that have completed a dental assisting training program from an accredited school. Fortunately, students enrolled in the Florida Career College’s Dental Assistant Program can complete such training while also earning on-the-job experience at a local clinic in as few as 10 months. Graduates emerge from the program career-ready and prepared to seek further certifications.

To become a dental hygienist requires even more education and training. Generally, dental hygienists are required to have an associate degree at minimum, though some employers may require a bachelor’s or master’s degree for advanced positions. Regardless, the program one chooses to attend must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in order to pursue licensure.

That said, the American Dental Association requires aspiring hygienists to, at minimum, complete an associate’s degree before they become eligible to take their board licensing exams and become a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH). Specific license requirements vary by state, though all states require their dental hygienists to be licensed.

Time to Become a Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

The time it takes to complete a dental assistant training program depends mostly on which school you attend and the program within which you opt to enroll. While programs at vocational schools and career colleges (including Florida Career College) can take just a few months, other programs, such as those at community colleges and universities, may be structured to take longer to complete.

In general, though, it takes less time to train to become a dental assistant than it does to become a dental hygienist. At FCC, for instance, our Dental Assistant Training Program can be completed in as few as 10 months. The program follows a hybrid learning model that includes online education and classes, hands-on, in-person training at one of our many campus dental assistant labs, and a 170-hour externship at a local practice or clinic.

In contrast, becoming a dental hygienist can take several years. At a minimum, dental hygienists are required to complete an associate’s degree, many of which are structured to take two years. Some employers, however, prefer to hire dental hygienists with a bachelor’s degree, a journey that typically takes an average of four years to complete. Extra education and training toward earning a master’s degree may even be required for some specialized or advanced hygienist positions.

Interested In Our Dental Assistant Program? CLICK HERE >

Licensing and Certifications

Besides education and training, another significant difference between what’s required to become a dental assistant versus a dental hygienist involves licensing and certification needs. While most states do not require specific certifications to work as a dental assistant, all states require their dental hygienists to be licensed.

That said, dental assistants may improve job prospects and, in some cases, add value to their positions by becoming certified dental assistants (CDA). CDA, or Certified Dental Assistant, is a national certification that’s obtained through the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc., or DANB. To obtain a CDA, applicants must pass three competency exams in general chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.

Should You Become a Dental Assistant?

Dental assisting is considered to be a good career choice for those who desire an entry-level career in a field that allows them to help people live happier, healthier, and more confident lives.

Not only that, but dental assistants can work from pretty much anywhere (note that state regulations and requirements may vary from state to state), and a large number of dentists rely on dental assistants to help with patient satisfaction and improve workflow in the clinic.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Depending on where you live, it’s possible your state does not require a set level of education, training, experience, or even licensing in order to practice dental assisting.

That said, if you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, you should capitalize on the opportunity to be specifically trained to become a dental assistant at an accredited school. Obtaining dental assistant training can help you stand out in a competitive market. Some employers even require such training when filling entry-level positions because they don’t have the bandwidth to train in-house.

Students who enroll in FCC’s Dental Assistant program are provided with education, skills training, and real-world experience that can help them earn entry-level dental assisting careers in as few as 10 months. Graduates complete the program prepared to seek further certifications, such as Certified Dental Assistant,  which can further improve employment potential.

Become a Dental Assistant at Florida Career College

FCC offers our Dental Assistant program at all of our campuses spread across Florida and Texas. To learn more about the FCC Dental Assistant program, which is offered through a hybrid format that mixes online learning with in-person, hands-on training, contact our admissions team or simply stop by one of our campus locations during business hours. We’d be thrilled to tell you about our schools, answer your questions about the program, and even provide you with a tour of the campus.

Interested In Our Dental Assistant Program? CLICK HERE >

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does a dental assistant do?

The most effective dental assistants are trained to perform tasks that fulfill a number of administrative and clinical duties. Administratively, a typical medical assistant’s day may include front-office work like answering phones, scheduling patient appointments, updating medical records, completing insurance forms, arranging labs and referrals, and general bookkeeping. On the clinical side, medical assistants may also show patients to their exam rooms, take their vitals, assist during physician examinations, perform certain lab tests, and educate patients regarding treatments, medications, course of care, and so on.

2. Is a dental hygienist the same as a dental assistant?

No. While there may be some overlap in certain day-to-day tasks performed by each, dental hygienists are more highly educated and trained to provide one-on-one preventative care for dentistry patients. Tasks performed by dental hygienists include assessing a patient’s overall oral health so potential issues can be identified early; removing plaque, tartar, and stains from teeth; applying fluoride and sealants; and educating patients regarding long-term treatment plans.

3. What are the requirements to become a dental assistant?

While requirements vary from state to state, most allow people to earn careers as dental assistants in two ways: 1) graduate from a dental assistant training program at an accredited school, or 2) earn on-the-job experience and training by working alongside a licensed dentist. As on-the-job training requires a greater employer investment in both time and money, many clinics prefer (and require) that their entry-level dental assistants have graduated from a reputable training program.